"I direct from the concertmaster chair," Joshua Bell explains. "I alternate between playing along with the first violins, and sometimes I drop my violin and I direct with my bow. I think it gives the players a lot of incentive. They are all sitting on the edge of their seats and I think that's what gives it a real visceral and exciting feel."
For years, violinist Joshua Bell has reigned as a classical music rock star. In 2011, he expanded his resume when he took the helm of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Bell is the orchestra's first music director since Sir Neville Marriner who founded this chamber orchestra in 1958. And Bell — one of the concert world's most recognizable solo artists — leads the ensemble not from the spotlight of conductor's podium, but sitting right alongside the Academy's violins.
Bell was born and raised in Indiana, but his new gig with this London-based band feels like a homecoming. "Well, I actually made my very first recording, period, with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields just around my 19th birthday with Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Bruch and Mendelssohn concerti. And then you jump to many years later. About a decade ago I started coming as a guest with the Academy, as a guest director. We developed a really nice relationship and I was very pleased when they asked me to be their music director just a year and a half ago."
Last spring Bell led the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on their first tour together, and now they've just released their first recording featuring Beethoven's Symphonies Number 4 and 7.
Beethoven's Seventh is the first symphony Joshua Bell fell in love with, in part because it was his mother's favorite. And then, he saw a video of Carlos Kleiber conducting it. "When you watch him conduct, you feel like the music is just inside of him. He's like a vessel for this music. He is Beethoven at that point. It's all about the composer because Beethoven is the genius in the room. And something about the way Kleiber does it, it's never overdone or underdone, it's just what it should be. And that's the kind of ideal, at least I try to strive for, and in all of music it should always be that way.
"The slow movement of Beethoven, the Seventh, is so profound. It's not just a beautiful melody — it's these layers on top of layers and with an underlying rhythmic element. I think if it gets too slow, you lose that. In fact, he marks it an Allegretto, which is not a very slow marking. I think he certainly had that in mind, that it shouldn't sink into a kind of sentimental, indulgent kind of thing. Because then it loses its deeper meaning."
Joshua Bell says there are so many great moments in the Fourth Symphony you just have to open yourself up to it. "When you listen to the first movement, after the introduction, which sort of psyches you out because you think it's going to be a very dark piece, and then it goes into this wonderful joyous main theme, but the return, the recap in the first movement, after the development it gets to be very, very quiet and it starts to build and build and gather and just erupts into the recapitulation in such a beautiful way — it's unlike any other piece. One should just prepare to get goose bumps."
Bell says, prepare yourself for more goose bumps in the final movements of both of these symphonies. "Well, I mean the Seventh Symphony certainly delivers in the end: this heroic and great celebration of joy and, I would say, triumph of the human spirit. And I love the last movement of the Fourth Symphony. It's a romp that leaves you feeling very much alive and feeling good."